The Hype about Hypersonics: Can they destabilize Deterrence?

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Image: Collected

The past weeks have seen considerable hype in the international media with regard to hypersonic vehicles in general, and China’s alleged tests of such platforms, in particular, this summer. Now, what are these hypersonics that are making such headlines? These are very fast-moving missiles- travelling at least five times the speed of sound which is roughly 760 miles per hour- flying so low as to undetectable by enemy radar. Apart from being quick they are also agile and maneuverable, “bobbing and weaving through the atmosphere” on their way to the target. Unlike ordinary ballistic missiles that follow a predetermined arched trajectory to destination, these rockets speed ahead “bobbing and weaving through the atmosphere” rendering them invulnerable to most existing defence systems.

There are two main types: Glide vehicles and cruise missiles. The former is launched from a rocket before gliding their way along their path to make the hit. The missiles have engines called scramjets that use oxygen from the air to produce the necessary and appropriate thrust during the flight. Last month the newspaper Financial Times reported that last summer China had conducted possibly two tests with hypersonic weapons capable of carrying nuclear payload. The tests supposedly featured “Fractional Orbit Bombardment System” (FOBS), which has the capability of circumnavigating the globe, and then when necessary, release the missiles. This would enable China to strike at any target in the world from space, with the warhead orbiting the earth for days before deorbiting at command.

Notwithstanding Chinese denial of the nature of the tests stating that they were simply launching a reusable vehicle, the reaction from the United States was swift. General Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the most senior American military commander, likened the reports to a near “Sputnik moment”, the reference being to the former Soviet Union’s launch of a satellite of that name in 1957, giving Moscow an early lead over Washington in the race to space. Even stronger words came from Gregory Hayes, the Chief Executive Officer of the Raytheon Technologies, a firm that is developing missiles with the United States military. Speaking to Bloomberg television, Hayes observed that the US was “several years” behind China regarding this technology, and while Pentagon has a number of related programmes in development, China was already deploying them. This might be bit of a stretch, but not if the idea of Milley and Hayes was to obtain more funding for the military from the Congress at a time when the only consensus in the American political scene was on the anti-China posture.

But it can also be dangerous. Deterrence is mainly about perceptions, and if the sense in Washington grows that China is rapidly developing the capacity to target the US at will, the propensity to strike first to prevent that capability from maturating to any great length would also arise. That in turn make China nervous, and subject both countries to possibilities of serious miscalculations, straining and possibly even breaking down the existing deterrence. Unlike during the first cold war, this time round, if this can be called Cold War 0.2, there are no arms agreement holding back either side. If restraint is only a function of tactics or strategy, it can collapse if the tactics and strategies change. This would render the management of the intense competition between the two major global rivals, by keeping them within diplomatic, political, and social parameters, exceedingly difficult.

But there was no mention of this sensitive subject in an important in-person meeting that took place on the sidelines of the Group of 20 Summit in Rome last Sunday. It was between Foreign Minister Wang Yi of China and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, their first after the incredibly testy bilateral between them in Anchorage Alaska in March. The description of the meeting by an American official as “exceptionally candid”, a diplomatese that would negate the idea of any chumminess, did not raise much hope, despite the use of the epithet, “productive”.

At least one saving grace was the explanation by Blinken that President Joe Biden’s unguarded remark some days ago that the US would come to Taiwan’s defiance, did not imply any change America’s “One China Policy”. China, which considers Taiwan its province and terms any interest as a “red line” that cannot be crossed, would otherwise have considered Biden’s words as “beating of war-drums “at the highest level.

So, the alleged tests by China of the hypersonic capabilities and the immediate reactions to them from the Americans, do not threaten the state of deterrence as of now, though may severely strain it unless handled with great circumspection. But it remains unclear if the end of the year will see the virtual summit between the leaders of the US and China, Presidents Xi Jinping and Joe Biden. If that does not come to fruition, we may be experiencing a similar sense of resignation as that of Sir Edward Grey, the then- British Foreign Secretary, as nations in Europe were sleepwalking into the First Great War. He had remarked: “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime”.

Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury is the Honorary Fellow at the Institute of South Asia Studies, NUS. He is a former Foreign Advisor (Foreign Minister) of Bangladesh and President & Distinguished Fellow of Cosmos Foundation. The views addressed in the article are his own. He can be reached at: isasiac @nus.edu.sg

  • International Media
  • Hypersonic Missile
  • China
  • United State of America (USA)

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